Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2-0 loss in Colorado may not have been as abject an away performance as some of the horror stories in the club’s MLS travelogue.
In terms of the damage done though, it was pretty massive due to the identity of the side they lost to and both clubs’ respective league placings.
As a quirk of the schedule, their last two matches of the 2013 regular season are against each other. Given that this comprises 1/4 of the Rapids’ entire remaining games and that the Caps have sides below and above them with a better record, the reality is that only one of these two sides is going to make it into the play-offs (unless the Sounders collapse).
What struck about the match is that the errors came by and large from the older brigade, those you expect not to make mistakes.
That starts at the very top with the selection and tactics of Martin Rennie. He has already spoken about the tactics so let’s focus on a selection matter.
The first puzzler was the decision to start Scotland striker Kenny Miller.
Miller played on Wednesday night at Wembley scoring Scotland’s second goal against England. Rennie would know as well as anyone the mental energy that drains any Scot when playing against the Old Enemy.
Miller flew back from London into Denver the day after the game and waited there for a day for his colleagues to arrive.
On top of an exhausting international and a long flight, Rennie decided to start Miller in Colorado’s altitude. Presumably Miller had also missed out on training and any tactical preparations being made in Vancouver for the match having been absent all week.
Is it any wonder therefore that he was largely ineffective?
Miller was the recipient of the best chance Vancouver created, courtesy of a perfectly threaded through ball from Russell Teibert. Clint Irwin in the Rapids goal did everything right in closing down the angle but in doing so removed any doubt in Miller’s mind.
Instinctively, a forward tried to chip a ball over an advancing keeper who has already chosen to go to ground.
Miller tried to side foot it around 6′ 3″ of horizontally sprawled Clint Irwin and hit him rather than get any height on an already committed keeper. It was pretty early in the game and mental tiredness is as good an explanation as any.
It is no secret that Darren Mattocks has been highly out of favour with Rennie. Some say it is attitudinal and Rennie wanted the youngster to display a better approach to being a professional soccer player.
Whatever the reasons for dropping him so far down the pecking order, he was included in the 18 ahead of Kekuta Manneh and alongside Erik Hurtado.
To be fair, Mattocks was already on the road back into favour after picking up a knock to his right knee in the 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire on July 14. He played only two minutes there and had been out of action ever since.
So was Mattocks not yet back in full form?
“He was fantastic today,” head coach Martin Rennie said of Mattocks to MLS Soccer after a training session on Friday.
“That’s probably the best training session he’s ever had. Amazing.”
In that case, why stick him on the bench when Miller played midweek, missed preparation and has had two transatlantic flights in the week?
It made little sense and the Whitecaps looked a far more potent side after 62 minutes when Mattocks belatedly entered the field for the Scot.
To labour the point a little, he had only been on the pitch four minutes when the speedster self created an excellent opportunity that took all of Marvell Wynne’s concentration and know-how to make it too difficult to convert.
Rennie should not however be the only mostly praised individual about whom fans should be posing questions.
YP Lee is one of the finest full backs in this league, if not the finest. However he is vulnerable when the club asks him to act as a centre half when the club loses possession during an attack.
Barely minutes after Miller’s miss, the Whitecaps lost possession upfield. The once more excellent Wynne stormed forward with it. Two passes later, Rapids’ new boy Vicente Sanchez played in an exquisite cross.
Look at the video below. YP Lee is left in no man’s land having seemingly half heartedly sauntered back.
In the close confines of a six yard box, there is little room to get round a mammoth human being like Deshorn Brown once the ball is in the air without contact which would present any forward with an opportunity to go down.
Lee’s problems did not begin when Sanchez hit the cross. They began when he let Brown get goal side of him while the play was proceeding toward’s his goal on Vancouver’s left side.
This should start sounding familiar to Whitecaps fans about now. In the Whitecaps’ last away game, there was an almost identical goal conceded.
Look at the video below from the away match in Portland. Once more the ball is lost upfield and Lee’s tracking back of Ryan Johnson is simply abysmal. He saunters and gets behind the Timbers’ Jamaican forward early.
By the time he realises that he’s been half asleep, the Korean’s options are limited to the same as they were in Colorado, simply hoping the cross from a cultured South American is poor.
As with Sanchez, the cross was quality and Argentinian Diego Valeri delivered the ball onto Johnson’s head as the Uruguayan did in Colorado. MLS opponents are simply too good nowadays to simply rely on mediocrity.
Two vital goals were conceded to direct rivals for the play-offs and Rennie has to find a solution soon.
Most likely is that even when the ball is coming at them from their left flank, one of the centre halves man marks the opposition target man. Lee can either switch infield to prevent a shorter passing movement with his undoubted ability to read a game, or stay near the mark and act as sweeper when his centre half colleague wins the first ball.
Outwith those two observations, it could have been much worse for the Caps. Nigel Reo-Coker was extremely fortunate not to have conceded a penalty for a handball.
The ineffectiveness of an injured Hnedry Thomas who somehow stayed on the pitch despite injuring himself trying to kick Reo-Coker handed some midfield space back to the Caps for parts of the last twenty minutes or so.
All is not lost however.
Vancouver are still only three points behind the Rapids with two games in hand. They play them twice more but the Sounders are breathing down their necks with games in hand.
Vancouver’s next two games are at home against each of the LA sides. A repeat of their earlier home win over the Galaxy would buy them valuable airspace and force the Galaxy to win other matches against other Western rivals. After that, home to Chivas and away to Dallas also present opportunities to snaffle a few more points.
The club may still sneak into the play-offs if they can thereafter win home games against Portland and Colorado in October.
But it would be better still to become tougher to beat on the road.